By Michele Kayal
Advertiser Staff Writer
The Japanese government has opened Tokyos domestic Haneda airport for service to select overseas resorts, taking a crucial first step toward easing what some Hawaii executives have called a strangling shortage of airline seats on flights between the state and one of its most important markets.
Beginning Feb. 16, Japan Airlines Co., All Nippon Airways, and Japan Air Systems will be permitted to use Haneda for charter flights to destinations such as Saipan, Guam and Hawaii. South Koreas Asiana Airlines and Korean Air reportedly will be allowed to serve the holiday island of Cheju.
Hawaii will benefit the very first day, with Japan Airlines flying a 747 from Haneda to Honolulu and All Nippon Airways bringing in a 210-passenger Boeing 767, according to officials at those airlines.
Although the service will be tightly restricted the five airlines will compete for a maximum of two takeoffs and two landings a week despite their multiple destinations Hawaii tourism executives and politicians welcomed the news yesterday as significant in a market where some say would-be travelers cannot get plane reservations.
"We believe theres insufficient lift from Japan, and its one of the constraints on the market here," said Sharon Weiner, group vice president of administration for DFS Hawaii. "Theres so much pent-up demand for Hawaii whatever we can do to accommodate that is good."
Until now, almost all international flights left from Tokyos Narita Airport, which is so crowded that at least one airline has pulled out of the market because it could not serve it efficiently. Narita is about two hours from the city center, while Haneda is only about a half-hour from central Tokyo.
Opening Haneda, which Tokyo has resisted for years, comes as solutions are being sought to ease growing pressure on the single runway at Narita, especially as the 2002 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, for which Japan and South Korea will be co-hosts, approaches.
Some supporters of the move estimate that opening Haneda could eventually increase Japanese tourism to the Islands by 10 percent.
For now, however, the total passengers from Haneda will be limited to about 1,000 per week, except on the first day of service, when each of the five airlines will be allowed to make an inaugural flight.
Takeoff and landing times will be scheduled for between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., possibly making flights from Haneda less desirable than some other options, according to JAL spokesman Geoffrey Tudor.
Japanese tourism to Hawaii has sagged since 1997, when Japan was dragged down by the Asian economic crisis. Air service has also suffered. The number of seats between Japan and Hawaii has shrunk 18 percent in the past three years, according to figures from the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, mostly because of service cuts by U.S. airlines.
Decline in seats
In 1997, the number of seats between Japan and Hawaii totaled nearly 3 million; last year, it totaled 2.4 million.
During that time, the number of visitors from Japan has shrunk or remained flat. In the first 11 months of 2000, 1.7 million Japanese visitors came to Hawaii, about the same as during the same period of 1999.
Kaz Fukuju, wholesale marketing manager with the Japan Travel Bureau in Tokyo, said he believes that about 5 percent of potential Hawaii business from Japan is slipping through the cracks because of a lack of seats.
"Weve got lots of demand but not enough capacity, especially in Tokyo," he said. "This helps, but its a charter flight. I think its not a big help."
Many Hawaii tourism executives and politicians, as well as Japanese tour operators, have beaten a slow but steady drum over the past several months for more seats from Japan. Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono has worked the issue for about a year, visiting Washington, D.C., and Tokyo to lobby for opening Haneda.
"Its a modest beginning," Hirono said yesterday. "But its definitely going in the right direction."
Until now, Taiwans China Airlines was the only carrier flying overseas out of Haneda, including a nonstop to Honolulu.
Slots at Narita have become so tight that last year Continental Airlines suspended its thrice-weekly service to Honolulu because it could not get the additional slots it said it needed to compete effectively.
Bloomberg News Service contributed to this report.
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